GENERAL ARTICLES

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S LONDON LETTER

Lest We Forget

December 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S LONDON LETTER

Lest We Forget

December 15 1945

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S LONDON LETTER

Lest We Forget

BARRIE, in one of his sentimental moments, wrote that memory was given to us so that we could have roses in December. It is a lovely thought but I wonder, if Barrie were living today, whether he would have written those words.

Nevertheless for many families this will be the happiest Christmas since those far-off days in 1938, when the world was still at peace and the hopes of Munich had not become the embittered prophecies of a terrible future. In Vienna, in Prague, in Paris and in Berlin people crowded the cathedrals and prayed that their sons, kneeling beside them, would be spared to them and to u world of decency. In London, Melbourne, Vancouver, Johannesburg, Chicago—families rejoiced together and in one form or another uttered Tiny Tim’s Christmas prayer: “God bless us, every one.”

It was a Christmas of happiness and shadows, of laughter and unuttered fears, or rejoicing that was near to tears.

Parents looked at their sons, vibrant with the strong beauty of their youth, and did not dare to speak their inner thoughts to each other. That was seven years ago—or was it 70 years ago? If the world, like human beings, grows old by moments and not by years, it could have been a century since 1938.

Then there was the false Christmas of 1939. We were at war, yet not at war. In restaurants people wore paper hats and acted as if Christmas were a new version of idiot’s delight. This was to be a conflict without a battle, a painless crushing of landlocked Germany by the ancient pressure of indomitable sea power. The bored crews of antiaircraft batteries kept some semblance of discipline, but they.knew that no German bomber would come.

In every city of Europe the cathedrals again were crowded, but the sons had gone. They were in the Maginot Line or the Siegfried Line, gazing across the pastoral quiet of a no man’s land, where no drop of blood crimsoned the deepening snow. In Holland and Belgium national leaders gave thanks that they were not at war, and spoke of the part, that they would be able to play in rebuilding a Europe shattered by nations unfortunate enough to be belligerents.

I sometimes wonder if courage is not strengthened by lack of imagination. If 1 were to trust to memory alone I would write that Christmas, 1940, found us in this Island, grim, battered, facing hopeless odds but determined to go down before the fates as people not unworthy of our mighty ancestors. But on consulting my diary for December, 1940, I discover that we were celebrating Christ mas in a spirit of glorious, if absurd, optimism. True, the Germans were only a few miles away across the Channel; but had we not defeated the LuftUKiffe? Did not London, despite its ruins, stand undefeated to the foe? Had we not broken Italy’s immediate menace by beating her in the desert and

bombing her fleet at Taranto? Was not Greece fighting on our side and finishing what was left of Mussolini’s power to do mischief?

It was the optimism of shipwrecked sailors who had swum to a raft that had no compass, no sail, and small supplies. We had survived and we did not doubt that somehow we would master the perils of the sea. The man in charge of the raft was named Churchill, who told us that this was our most glorious hour. Nor did we laugh at him. We knew that it was true.

The tragedy of war is in its cruelty and its aftermath. The glory of war is that it makes people selfless. Once more we went to church to give thanks, although the bells did not summon us. Their ringing was reserved to announce the landing of the invading enemy.

Perhaps our optimism w'as not as illusory as it might seem in retrospect. The young nations of the Empire, remote from actual attack, were sustaining us with men, supplies and treasure. That great man President Roosevelt had come into the war by our side, although his country was still in a state of

benevolent neutrality. Russia was still the great enigma, but at least she was as puzzling to Germany as to us.

There was a lull in the Battle of London. Another of Goering’s promises had gone wrong. Hitler raged in fury. He had won the war but could not end it.

The Slender Thread

CHRISTMAS, 1941. Grateful, yet sobered by tribulation, we faced reality. America and Russia were in the war, but the fury of battle had broken and the destiny of mankind hung on a thread. The Germans were at the gates of Moscow, disaster had come to us in the desert, the shame of Hong Kong had turned into the threat against Australia. Our losses at Crete had been terrible. Every day held its thrill and its terror. Would Hitler succeed where Napoleon failed? Would his victorious armies cut our life line at Suez? Could our men and ships survive the grueling Battle of the Atlantic?

Not since the war began did we go so falteringly to church, or feel so cruelly the gnawing of doubt. It is the paradox of events that when buttressed by mighty Allies we faced the possibility of defeat, though we had never admitted it before. Russia neutral was a barrier of defense to us. Russia beaten would open the flood gates to the Middle East. No longer were we masters of our fate as when we stood alone.

But Russian valor held the line and saved the world, just as America’s gigantic strength forged the weapon of victory itself. How tawdry the bickerings among us all seem today when we remember those fateful days!

So we reached the Christmas festivals of the next two years, with Germany on the defensive and victory beyond Hitler’s reach. Yet when Christmas came in 1944 it was with the realization that only the desperate gamble of the Allied invasion of Hitler’s European fortress had saved this Island from something very near annihilation.

Bombing has become a story so boring that it has almost lost its horror. Yet, dim as the memory of the first blitz has become, I shall never forget that gentle morning in early summer last year when the siren warnings sounded and I heard an approaching enemy plane which sent a sudden chill to my heart. Danger makes the senses unnaturally alert and in a flash I knew that there was no human being in the machine.

The guns were firing at it but it was travelling low and did not alter height. In the past the German pilots weaved, dropped and climbed to make themselves a difficult target, while the sound of the engines had given their own grinding music to each manoeuvre. But this inhuman flying bomb w'as as without fear as it was without pity.

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The next three days were the worst that we Londoners had known. The guns were silent because their shells increased our danger, while if they hit the pilotless plane they merely brought the bomb down on one street instead of another. Every few minutes of the day and night the sirens wailed to tell us that the doodlebugs had passed the coastal defenses and were nearing London. Neither daylight nor darkness offered any security. We were without sleep, without respite. One night, at the end of the street in which I live, one of these infernal machines hit a block of fiats. More than 100 people died horribly.

But once more our young cavalry of the air rode against the monsters, as they had done in 1940 against the Luftwaffe. Aided by the guns and balloons massed at the coast they brought the new terror under reasonable control. Not long afterward I was walking home to enjoy a wonderful cloudless late afternoon when, without any sound or warning, a gigantic explosion split the air.

It was the first of the rockets which travelled faster than sight or sound, and against which there was only one defense—our Armies in Francecapturing the sites from which they werelaunched. That Christmas we thought that science could go no farther in its savage satire on civilization. We did not know that Hitler’s playthings of death were already outdated by the coming triumph of the atomic bomb.

This year at Christmas the church bells will ring, for there is no threat of invasion. The snow will lie deep between the Maginot and the Siegfried Lines, but the roads through them will be lined with the lorries of the victors carrying food to starving Germany. Winter comes to Berlin with a pitiless, clinging chill. Gaunt creatures will crawl from the ruins and plead for bread. Europe, the cradle of western civilization, will be a sepulchre.

We in Britain will see to it that no one lacks the friendly warmth of a fireside or good companionship, for at Christmas the spirit of Charles Dickens walks and makes the British lose their native shyness. In thousands of homes, as in so many homes in Canada, there will be the empty chair of the son who did not come back. They will talk of

him as if he is not dead, they will recall the last Christmas he spent at home, and they will bravely keep their tears inside their hearts.

They gave their immortality, these boys, to save the world from a thousand years of night. That they did, but they could not ensure the comingofday. We who have survived keep looking for the dawn.

At last the distance of the years has been bridged. Christ came to earth to give us God’s command of peace and good will. Today man has it in his power not only to destroy the world but even the universe. The human mind has outgrown the human soul, yet only the soul can save us. Once we traversed the skies with searchlights to seek out the bomber that came by night. Now we must seek the Star of Bethlehem or perish.

If the mind in its arrogance denounces religion as superstition, if the realist argues that truth is found only in

what can be proved, and that faith is nothing more than a lantern for the blind, then we must answer reason with the language of reason. What substitute is there for peace and good will? What can replace the profound political philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount? Call Christianity a fantasy based upon legend; but what has the world to off er in its place?

So without families around us at Christmas we shall talk of many things and our thoughts will be with you in Canada, where so many of our children and warrior sons found happiness and sunshine for a time. But not the strongest door or shuttered w’indow will keep out the chill, lifeless wind that seeps from Europe.

And when the long day is over and the fire burns low we shall offer the ancient sacrifice of a humble and a contrite heart. Lest we forget . . . lest we forget . . .

This time we must not forget.